Street art by Jallal in Paris.
Street art by Jallal in Paris.
Detroit authorities have charged world-famous street artist Shepard Fairey with malicious destruction of property, a felony, alleging that Fairey put up posters on structures owned by the city.
The artist was arrested July 6 at Los Angeles International Airport on a warrant issued by Detroit’s 36th District Court. City authorities did not seek to extradite Fairey, who was later released in Los Angeles on bail set at $75,000. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Detroit officials opted to begin working with Fairey’s attorney so the artist can turn himself in … Fairey faces up to five years behind bars and several thousands of dollars in fines if convicted.”
Ironically, Fairey’s arrest comes less than two months after he completed a gigantic,18-story-tall mural in downtown Detroit, commissioned by Dan Gilbert. Gilbert is a multibillionaire real-estate/home-loan tycoon who is leading the drive to build an upscale enclave for the upper middle class in the center of America’s poorest major city. Fairey is alleged to have done the illegal tagging while he was in Detroit to paint the mural.
Gilbert’s people were no doubt aware of Fairey’s penchant for unauthorized street art at the time of the commission. Though he is perhaps best-known for his ubiquitous “HOPE” poster, which became a part of the 2008 presidential election campaign of Barack Obama, Fairey has, for decades, built an anti-establishment reputation by spray-painting and placing stickers and posters in public spaces without permission. (Indeed, it is likely that Gilbert and company hoped Fairey’s “bad boy” image would lend them a certain amount of credibility.)
A Detroit Free Press article in May, headlined “Street Artist Shepard Fairey ready to tag Detroit”, quotes the artist to this effect: “I still do stuff on the street without permission. I’ll be doing stuff on the street when I’m in Detroit.”
The bringing of felony charges against Fairey is an act of intimidation. The local elite wants to send the message that it will punish anyone who challenges its plans. Those plans include the virtual walling-off of downtown Detroit from the social devastation in the neighborhoods, where sixty percent of children live in poverty and abandoned factories and tens of thousands of burned-out homes mar the landscape. Residents commonly compare Detroit’s neighborhoods to post-shock-and-awe Iraq, an image that is not conducive to tourism, shopping and loft-apartment lifestyles.
Gilbert, Detroit’s richest man, pursued equally severe charges against three teenage girls in June of 2014 after surveillance cameras recorded them tagging a downtown alley. “Unfortunately, once in a great while, degenerates who don’t ‘get it’ crawl out of their deep dark holes and try to ruin it for the rest of us,” wrote Gilbert at the time in a personal email to his 12,500 downtown employees, whom he enlisted in a witch-hunt against the youths. He attached surveillance images of the teenagers and offered to pay to paint the house of whoever identified them first.
(The cameras that captured this incident are part of Gilbert’s privately owned and operated surveillance network, which covers not only public, outdoor spaces, but also includes cameras located inside the newsrooms of both of the city’s major newspapers, the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News.) My Fox Detroit reports that it was the Detroit Police Department’s “graffiti task force,” created during the city’s precedent-setting municipal bankruptcy last year, which initiated the attack on Fairey. The task force is reported to have arrested 30 people in 2014, and 13 more this year, resulting in at least one jail sentence of six months.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a Democrat, defended the prosecution of Fairey, telling reporters that the city has issued hundreds of tickets to graffiti taggers. Last October, Duggan attacked Detroit’s famous “creative corridor”—a miles-long stretch of blighted buildings on Grand River Avenue that has been covered with murals and other art installations. After detaining several muralists—who had permission from the owners of the building they were painting—and fining the owners to the tune of $8,000, public outcry forced Duggan to climb down and apologize.
In the 1950s, when its population peaked at nearly two million people, Detroit had the highest standard of living of any major city in the country. After decades of deindustrialization, the city now perennially tops lists of America’s poorest and most dangerous urban centers. Its blighted neighborhoods and abandoned, decaying factories, schools, hotels, theaters, etc., have become a world-famous symbol of social decline, a modern ruin.
The real vandals in Detroit, then, are not the artists who draw attention to or explore this situation through graffiti, murals and other public works, whether or not they ask permission. The criminals are instead to be found in the boardrooms of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford, and on the yachts of the bankers and hedge fund managers who forced the city into bankruptcy to steal the pensions of retirees, sell off public assets and increase the value of their own municipal bond-holdings.
The six-figure-salaried heads of the United Auto Workers and other unions have also actively participated by blocking any organized struggle of workers in opposition to this process. They openly supported the bankruptcy. And Gilbert, for his part, has made billions in recent years by buying up downtown real estate on the cheap, kicking out residents (including artists and working class retirees) and jacking up rents.
Last week, HBO debuted Banksy Does New York, a documentary on Banksy’s 2013 residency in NYC, where he debuted a new work every day in various areas of the city, each imbued with his trademark wit and moralistic commentary. Each of his pieces ignited some sort of confrontation, be it another artist painting over his work to make a point, or individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit charging admission to see a section of a wall. In Queens last fall, I got to look at one piece just hours after it was created and moments before it was defaced. The graffiti was of a workman erasing a quote from Gladiator — “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” Both the piece within the piece and the work itself would now only be echoes, as a local graffiti artist angrily tagged over it while a hissing crowd pleaded him to stop. The next day, it was painted over.
One early morning this year I was taking the 7 train in Queens, a mostly-elevated line that runs from Flushing to underneath Manhattan. The 7 is a unique vantage into the state of NYC graffiti, where street-level murals meld with larger tags in harder-to-reach places further up on buildings. In fact, it’s almost a museum in itself, with established artists like Klops sharing space with kids who are just learning the art. If you’re lucky on this early train ride, you get to meet some of the artists. At 74th street in Jackson Heights, a group of teenagers got on the train and huddled at the window. For them, it was the first time they were seeing their art the way most people do.
“Oh shit, we got high up!”
They were pointing at a tag that was almost impossibly placed on the side of a building. In the first light of day, they were finally seeing the danger that they had faced during the night before, all in their attempt to have their names echo with the riders of this train. Almost a year later, that tag they put on the side of the building remains, and will possibly stay there until the building is re-painted or torn down.
It’s the tearing down that causes a larger threat to graffiti than even policing. While famous, established groups like T.A.T.S. Cru have set up shop in community centers and been given studio space and walls on which to work, the urban environment itself is presenting less canvas than ever. As the necessary push for density emanates ever outward from the city center, gleaming condominiums have crossed over from Manhattan and into Brooklyn and Queens (one of the few places to still see graffiti in downtown Manhattan, Chinatown, has so far remained resistant to massive upscaling . . . but stay tuned), and quite symbolically, 5 Pointz is being torn down to make way for condos. While graffiti presents itself as an art with a rather low cost-of-entry, works of graffiti are now being absorbed by these massive developments, who advertise their galleries as one day hosting a show featuring the very same graffiti they replaced. The canvas has moved inside the building — to the benefit of developers, a select group of artists, and the architects of the city, who badly want more apartments built on former industrial sites as soon as possible.
So the canvas moves ever outward — not that it ever knew a boundary in the first place. When the MTA finally cracked down on graffiti artists who turned their trains into murals in the 1970s and 80s, graffiti remained on overpasses and buildings, and still appeared in subway tunnels and, every now and then, on a train. But as parts of New York City might finally become the first graffiti-exclusion zones, either by design or by their sheer inaccessibility, one wonders where the push will end. Because we’re not really talking about graffiti at all, but how one can leave their mark on what was home. And, however cheesy, how long that mark can echo.
Max Rivlin-Nadler is a freelance writer who has covered culture and politics for The New York Times, The Nation, The New Republic, and Gawker.